Hiding culture: Google Books & Snippets

In May 2006 I was overjoyed with Google books. I retold an anecdote where I was able to find a book after watching a documentary

[It] was mentioned briefly in a documentary tonight and it sparked my curiousity. So I looked for the book, searching the online databases of second hand bookstores. No luck. Then, almost as a joke, I googled it. And there it was on google books. Cool but it was not like I was going to read it online. Then I saw the download button. Within minutes of hearing of the book for the first time I had a pdf of it on my computer – Google books is too cool!

Amazing, fantastic, brilliant… but. There is a tendency to forget that Google is not a neutral infrastructure and therefore has no real desire to preserve and make available books – even when they have scanned them.

Dingodog led me to this problem via the PD-discussion list

Googlebooks has scanned tons of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS, but not all PUBLIC
DOMAIN BOOKS are accessible

there are a tons of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS that Goglebooks non only has
left in snippet view, but that refuses to UNLOCK for full view (and they
are in PUBLIC DOMAIN!!!)

I have a sad story to tell, about these public domain books left in
snippet view:

since 2009 I’m complaining about a same set of PUBLIC DOMAIN BOOKS whose
copyright expired since more than 10-20 years

I sent a mail every month, then every week, and all this during last
three years to report the erroneous classification of public domain
books as snippet view. Now I’m considering to send a mail every day, but
I’m not confident about effects; I think Googlebooks will ignore my
complaints, as it has ignored during these years

it seems, in fact, that Googlebooks has absolutely no will to unlock,
even if user (as I have done) provides well documented biographical info
and cites the laws regulating the status of book in different countries

People complained about public domain books left in snippet view and
googlebooks user forum was full of these complaints with google
employees not only unable to unlock (maybe google not provided this
ability to employees, or it simply ignored requests), but seriously
lacking in knowledge of googlebooks structure

The discussion continues on the list but it is terribly important to know that scanning is not preservation and does not mean access. Additionally when Google makes these choices it is increasingly important to know this.

Another question I find interesting is the question of multiple copies. Will Google care enough to make multiple scanned copies available? Will we be able to see the errors and additions in certain volumes or not?

Sure the originals are still around but the problem is that with the convenience of Google people will forget this and focus on what is available online. Also the availability of Google books will prevent more rigorous projects from being carried out.

The end of Swedish?

Today I did something unusual… I bought a book! Well the book in itself is not unusual but what was different today was the fact that the book was old fashioned analogue – you know… re-used, old dead trees.

When it was launched I was anti-Kindle, in November 2007 I even wrote:

For me it doesn’t matter how fancy schmancy the details are – and Kindle has some impressive details. The dead tree with ink stains still remains my clear favorite.

But eventually I succumbed and bought one by the end of 2010. Almost immediately my reading and purchasing patterns changed drastically – this became very obvious when the book Själens medium: Skrift och subjekt i Nordeuropa omkring 1500 by Götselius was not available in digital format… and did not buy it!

Most of the time this is not a problem as most of my reading is in English. But this has an interesting side-effect: publishers in small language groups seem to think that staying out of the Kindle market is a smart way of maintaining control over their market. But the problem is that this market is diminishing. Given a choice – the Kindle user is almost forced into the a larger language group.

Sure, I was forced to buy a book today but that’s still 15 less than I would have during the same period.

Nothing wrong with Shallows

Right now I have arrived almost to the middle of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. His book is a techno-criticism focusing on the ways in which our technology is changing the way in which we behave. His basic argument is that our attention spans are going the way of the Dodo and that we will no longer be able to read, write or think in the way we used to.
Implicitly in this criticism is that we are much worse off as a species for these developments.
Carr is an interesting writer and his book is filled with all the rights stories about how advances in technology have changed the way in which we think. He brings up Plato’s criticism of writing in Phaedrus where writing is the appearance of knowledge and spends time with Gutenburg, the invention of spaces between words and silent reading. He uses McLuhan and Winner to show both the role of technology and determinism. It is a very good read.

But the problem is that Carr does not really attempt to analyze the effects of changes. Through his arguments we get the impression that hypertext changes everything, Wikipedia can be dangerous and Twitter must be downright evil. And he may be right.

My problem is that he generalizes his lack of ability to read into a full-blown criticism of technology. Sure he finds arguments that support his claim but it is still a massive generalization. It may be that technology has re-wired his brain. Or it may be that he lacks the skill sets to cope with the technology or it may be that he is no longer interested in reading the same way he used to be.

The interesting thing in his arguments is that he presents them in a book, albeit a light popular science book but still a book. If we are no longer capable of reading then he shouldn’t waste his time on this medium of the past. Or maybe he is just catering to the group of technophobes who want to say things were better before…

In his critique of technology he reserves a special place for the ebook reader – which I find even more interesting as I am reading his book on a kindle. He means that writing and books will be more and more catered to the lowest common denominator, which is probably true. But what’s new about this? Books have not always been weighty works of philosophy. Pulp fiction, cowboy literature and simple romances are surely a huge market. There has always been a huge market for the lighter works or trash literature as my father would have called them. Trash literature, comics and television naturally formed the way I am and I still happily read many of these genres – but this does not mean I am incapable of reading more difficult works.

At times I suspect that he is not as critical as he claims but he is trolling for an argument, provoking and posturing for a fight.  But Carr is well worth reading – even when he is wrong.

An apology to ebooks

So I eventually succumbed. My joy of tech over won my aversion to the e-book reader and I bought a Kindle. The years fighting it and making better and better arguments for not needing or wanting one suddenly slip away.

And I apologize. I still love and define myself large parts of myself by my physical library but I have become a follower. Instead of constantly needing to carry books inside my heavy laptop bag I have this little device. I can choose from a great library of works and I can read them in a dark corner in a crowded bus.

On the differences between the Kindle and the iPad the Kindle wins because it lacks features. This is counter intuitive and most probably will not last but it should be the Kindles strongest selling argument. Another e-book sceptic Hiltzik writes in the LA Times :

The Kindle, by contrast, has been optimized as a reading device. The letters seem to sit on top of its matte black-and-white E Ink display, reducing eyestrain, their outlines razor-sharp. One good thing about the Kindle is it’s distraction-free — there is a Web browser, but luckily it’s almost useless. The iPad invites you to set aside your reading to play, Web surf, check e-mail, futz around in a million digital ways; the Kindle is solely for reading.

Once again I can see that the traditional bookstore (which I love) has lost relevance to my lifestyle. My reading habits are also changing in relation to what I read, how I read and when I read.

So even though I love a good book – actually holding the physical copy will be a special event. I eventually got rid of my cd collection… how long will my library last?

My Creative Commons book collection

Like squirrels collecting nuts it is easy to try to fill a hard drive with “useful stuff” – just to have it available at some later date. The stuff of interest right now are various books I like/need/reread/ that are licensed under Creative Commons licenses. Often when I come across a CC licensed book of interest I tend save the file on my hard drive and write about it on the blog.

When I recently recommended Deazley, R., Kretschmer, M. & Bently, L. (2010) Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright, in this entry I got a comment that I could support their bandwidth by hosting the book. An easy request to fulfill. I also began thinking about files that occasionally disappear from the web and I decided to resolve part of this issue as well.

So instead of only saving the Creative Commons licensed books I like on my hard drive I created a page on my other blog for the books. If you have a book you would like to recommend please leave a suggestion in the comments section.

My top 20 non-fiction

OK, so I should be writing but I needs a break and this seems like a worthwhile attempt at procrastination…

Every time someone dares to create a canon they are naturally shot down. But at the same time I really want to list the 20  non-fiction books a well rounded person should read. A list like this can never be complete and I would really appreciate any and all tips on books which should be included:

Richard DawkinsThe Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for evolution

Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion

Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything

Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

Karen ArmstrongA History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

David BollierSilent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

George MonbiotBring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice

George MonbiotThe Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order

John PilgerFreedom Next Time

Fredrick SchauerFree Speech: A philosophical inquiry

Rupert SmithThe Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World

John GribbinScience: A History 1543-2001

Vandana ShivaWater Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit

Vandana ShivaProtect or Plunder?: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights

Ronald DworkinTaking Rights Seriously

Neil PostmanTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Okakura KakuzoThe Book of Tea

Amartya SenThe Idea of Justice

Peter SingerAnimal Liberation

John Stuart MillOn Liberty

November book givaway

The last book giveaway worked really well so I decided to continue the tradition a bit longer. Let me know in the comments if any of the books on the list catch your fancy. I have a Swedish list on a separate blog.

Sean Lang Parliamentary Reform 1785-1929

Bruno Giordano The Ash Wednesday Supper

Stephen Gray The artist as thief

The Memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring

The philosophy of Schopenhauer

Richard Susskind The Future of Law

Beauchamp & Childress Principles of Biomedical Ethics (4th ed)

Michael Morton The Critical Turn: Studies in Kant, Herder, Wittgenstein & Contemporary Theory

Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel

Mark McCormack What they dont teach you at Harvard Business School

Robert Ardrey The Territorial Imperative

Too many books – a givaway

I am now faced with an aesthetic dilemma – I have too many books and not enough will-power to stop buying more. The solution to the problem was to decrease the number of books I had so that I could keep up my addiction to dead trees. So first I used BookCrossing to release a bunch of books into the wild. Ten books, almost all in Swedish, but this was not enough

So now I am announcing a book givaway. I will send you any of the following books just tell me which you want in the comments below:

Collins & Makowsky (1998) The Discovery of Society (6th ed)

Robert Graves (1981) The Greek Myths vol 1 & 2

David Ariel (1988) The Mystic Quest

Wittgenstein (1961) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

John Allen Paulos (2000) I Think Therefore I Laugh

Sean Lang (1999) Parliamentary Reform 1785-1928

Stephen Gray (2001) The Artist is a Thief

Will Kymlicka (1995) Multicultural Citizenship

Hegel’s Political Writings (1998)

Mary Midgley (1991) Wisdom, Information & Wonder: What is knowledge for?

Giordano Bruno (1995) The Ash Wednesday Supper

Science books: The best of the best

Tim Radford reviews the short listed books for this years prestigious Royal Society Science Book Prize. Read the reviews and then go read the books. We are living in a time when science books are fun reading – are we at the height of science reporting? So sure the criticism that science becomes devalued into entertainment but that’s a hell of lot better than being ignored.

What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life by Avery Gilbert (Crown $23.95)

What the Nose Knows - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (Harper Perennial £8.99)

Bad Science - Royal Society Science Book Prize

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Harper Press £25)

The Age of Wonder - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer by Jo Marchant (Windmill Books £8.99)

Decoding the Heavens - Royal Society Science Book Prize

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow (Penguin £9.99)

The Drunkard's Walk - Royal Society Science Book Prize

Your Inner Fish: The Amazing Discovery of Our 375-million-year-old Ancestor by Neil Shubin (Penguin £9.99)

You Inner Fish - Royal Society Science Book Prize